3 Spy Aircraft that Were Also 'Weather Balloons'

America's most amazing weather balloon. (Lockheed)

The Chinese "weather balloon" that Beijing claims was "blown off course" over one of the United States' most important intercontinental ballistic missile sites isn't the first time what would seem to be a secret spy mission went off script.

It's also not the first time a government had to find an explanation for one of those adventures. China is probably just taking a page out of the U.S. government 1960s-era cover-up playbook that we'll call: The ol' "Weather Balloon Dodge."

It's a classic for a reason.

According to Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force's review of Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) reports between 1952 and 1969, most UFO sightings are either astronomical phenomena, satellites, aircraft or balloons. But Blue Book was not entirely truthful about its answers, says The New York Times. And while China's balloon is definitely a balloon -- there's no doubt about that -- there were times where the "balloon" in question was definitely an aircraft.

1. U-2 Dragon Lady

The U-2 Dragon Lady took its first flight with the CIA and the U.S. Air Force in 1955, the result of years of work developing an aircraft that could not only fly out of reach of the Soviet Union's anti-air defenses, but also most of its interceptor aircraft. For nearly a decade, the U-2's ceiling of more than 70,000 feet was out of range of Soviet radar.

Pictured: A weather balloon. (U.S. Air Force)

That doesn't mean it wasn't entirely invisible from the ground. The scope of Project Blue Book would include the development timeline of the U-2, but the existence of the spy plane wasn't fully revealed until May 1960 when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down during an overflight of the Soviet Union.

2. SR-71 Blackbird

If high altitude wasn't enough to keep the Soviets from shooting down top-secret spy aircraft, the Air Force, CIA and Lockheed's Advanced Development Program (also known as Skunk Works) reasoned that extremely high speed should do the trick. The SR-71 was designed to fly at a ceiling of 85,000 feet at Mach 3.3. If a surface-to-air missile happened to track it, the plane would simply outrun the missile.

Pictured: A weather balloon. (U.S. Air Force)

From 1957, Lockheed developed a series of airframes that would eventually culminate in a titanium aircraft (with titanium deceptively acquired from the USSR) that would meet all its needs. The CIA says the Air Force knew that many of the UFO reports from its development were actually SR-71 test flights. President Lyndon B. Johnson declassified the plane as a campaign strategy during the 1964 presidential election.

3. Actual Balloons. No Joke.

There's a reason the Department of Defense believes China's weather balloon is actually a reconnaissance balloon: The DoD is developing reconnaissance balloons of its own. The Pentagon plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 on balloon-related projects to get its own recon balloons into the stratosphere.

Pictured: A weather balloon. (Lockheed)

It may seem like an idea from the 1960s, but high-altitude balloons 60,000-90,000 feet above the Earth's surface, equipped with machine learning algorithms and solar panels, are a cheap, effective way to watch hypersonic missile testing from America's geopolitical rivals. They can also loiter for much, much longer than any drone. If any of the massive balloons get forced down, they'd just be another weather balloon, which the National Weather Service still uses.

Please do not try to shoot down an NWS weather balloon.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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